Sunday, April 26, 2015

Iron Town: Fierro, New Mexico

I might as well stop saying that I’m going to post more often because the more I say it the less I actually post. Maybe I’ll just say that I would like to post more often and leave it at that. Could this be seen as a quality over quantity issue instead? Well, whatever the case, after a couple quiet months let’s finally pay a visit to Fierro, New Mexico, in the southwestern part of the state, a few miles due east of Pinos Altos. For a true ghost town, it’s still got a good number of buildings which, while certainly falling, aren’t completely down and out yet, and it has plenty of lonely charm. All you’re likely to hear while exploring is the occasional sound of wood scraping tin when the breeze picks up and maybe the caw of a crow or two flying overhead.

Fierro is an archaic form of hierro, the Spanish word for “iron,” and iron is the reason the town was born in the first place. The mining history goes back to 1841, when Sofio Henkle (or Hinkle), a German immigrant living in Mexico, went looking for copper deposits. He found both copper and iron on a mountain a few miles north of the big copper mine in Santa Rita and named the mountain and its new mine Hanover, after his former home. The town just a couple miles south of Fierro would also be called Hanover (we’ll go there next time).

Henkle, however, was soon driven out by Apaches and lucky to escape with his life; he’d been warned of an imminent attack by a friendly Apache woman. Henkle returned years later after New Mexico became a U.S. Territory, believing that he’d be alright now that the army was guarding mines. But then the Civil War required most Federal soldiers to head east and Apaches and Confederates started raiding. So Henkle gave up for good and lived the rest of his life in the Mesilla Valley to the south.

As the 19th century wound down, with the threat of Apache raids gone, and the railroad already having arrived at Silver City—about 15 miles southwest—by the early 1880’s, Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) took an interest in the iron ore deposits of Fierro. A post office was established in 1899, about when the railroad reached Fierro itself, and as much as ten carloads of ore started getting shipped out each day to Pueblo, Colorado, where CF&I were based.

(Above is a home I believe was originally owned by the Bacon family and then the Drakes. Its last owners were the Araujo family, who rented it out.)

The population of Fierro was 750 in 1920 and probably never much over 1,000, even during the peak years between WWI and the start of the Great Depression, by which point six million tons of iron had come from Fierro’s mines. Seventy-eight percent of Fierro’s population was of Mexican descent in 1920, and that percentage increased, reaching the high nineties once the mines closed.

The mines shut down in 1931, although the large Continental Mine ran intermittently and, tragically, in 1947 four miners were killed near it in a “short fuse” accident. While the Cobre Mining Company resumed operations, now with an emphasis on copper, and some residents stayed at least into the 1990’s, Fierro never recovered from the economic blows of the early 1930’s, when people began to leave quickly, many for gold mines in California.

The Gilchrist and Dawson Store, Mrs. Rel’s Rooming House, Filiberto’s Variety Store, McCoy’s Store and post office, John Oglesby’s silent movie house, Sheriff Mac Minter’s pool room; these places were frequented by the miners and their families. Now they’re all gone. Some of them burned in a fire in 1923 when a miner from Mogollon went to sleep at Mrs. Rel’s following a fandango next door and kicked over a kerosene lamp in his room. Without a fire department, and with some buildings even having sidewalks made of wood, much of Fierro’s early commercial district burned fast.

(Below is the Phoenix Mercantile (aka La Tienda del Finicas), which even sold fine furniture. Later it became Araujo’s Grocery and housed the post office. Sitting on the steps waiting for the mail was a common pastime in Fierro.)

Another building of interest is the little jail by the railroad tracks, near the arroyo that runs through the town (pictured below). In Black Range Tales, James McKenna recalled visiting Fierro in the 1880’s and noted that mining towns punished wrongdoers by tying them to a thick log which had been sunk in the earth with eight feet remaining above ground. Normally prisoners would be released once they’d sobered up and/or calmed down. That could easily take all night. Fierro reportedly did away with its log in the early years, even though the sturdy concrete jail probably never held any true desperadoes.

Fierro was known for its love of baseball, with three different fields being used during the town’s history. In the late 1930’s, the team went by the seemingly unusual name “Peru Miners.” Basketball was also popular, with games being played on the school’s dirt court until it was paved in the 1930’s. Fierro even had a Boy Scout troop as late as the 1940’s.

One interesting tradition in Fierro was El dia de las Travesuras, The Day of Pranks, which was a replacement for Halloween. On that night there was no trick-or-treating in Fierro. Instead, kids played pranks, the most common of which was to tip over outhouses. One man spent a night in his outhouse with a shotgun to prevent any hi-jinks, only to have his bathroom toppled anyway when he went back to his house at 2AM for a quick cup of coffee. This never happened to the managers of CF&I as they had indoor plumbing and even electricity. Later, it’s said that a popular prank was swapping around railroad and highway signs, which might cause problems regardless of income bracket.

While Fierro is a ghost town now, two places that are very much alive are St. Anthony’s Mission Catholic Church (above), built in 1916 and later enlarged, and, ironically enough, the cemetery, which covers four acres and is lovingly maintained these days. Aside from regular services, a celebration and mass is still held each year on June 13th, the Feast of St. Anthony, and many of those for whom Fierro remains important meet to reminisce and once again walk the quiet streets of the old place.

Some information for this post came from "New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns," “Ghost Towns Alive,” and "The Place Names of New Mexico," but the best place to learn about Fierro is “Remembering Fierro (Again) (Revised Edition)” by Frank Ramirez. It’s not very often that an out-of-the-way ghost town has an entire book dedicated to it, but I’m certainly pleased on the rare occasions when it happens. Mr. Ramirez passed away in 2011 and this post is dedicated to him.

Next time we’ll go back just a couple miles south and check out Hanover, NM. (Well, after this little POSTSCRIPT on the graffiti of Fierro.)


CoastConFan said...

I visited Silver City a good number of times over the years, but never went over to Fierro, so thanks for the write up and the photos. Your post was excellent as usual. You might visit another ghost town of much greater age nearby, the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. That is different kind of ghost town, but one worthy of your blog, although a bit offbeat. You could say it was the great grandfather of ghost towns in that area.

jmhouse said...

Glad you liked the post, CoastConFan! Thanks for saying so. You know, I have been to the Gila Cliff Dwellings "ghost town" but don't have all that many photos. I *should* return and work something up for City of Dust. I've also been toying with doing a post or two on the Salinas Pueblo Missions ruins in central NM. JM

It's all about ME... said...

This is the town where my grandfather was born.
He passed away in 2011. He and his siblings would tell us kids stories of this much family "history" here. Thanks for sharing pictures. Hopefully one day I will be bale to visit.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your comment, It's all about ME...! It's always wonderful to hear from people with family connections to these places. I think you'd find a visit to Fierro very enriching. It's not too difficult to get to, although it might actually be a shorter drive from El Paso than Albuquerque.

Please give us a report if you make the trip someday! JM

It's all about ME... said...

I plan is on my bucket list. said...

It was nice to read your blog about Fierro! My mother was born there and it was nice to share the story with her. My mother was born in Fierro in 1930 and her father, Jesus Melgoza Galvan, owned the first "Mexican" general store in Fierro. Her father owned stores in Hanover, Fierro and Central (Santa Clara) when my mother was a child. Frank Ramirez, whom you cite in your blog as author of the book, "Remembering Fierro (Again)(Revised Edition) was my mother's nephew. Frank's parents, Maria Galvan Ramirez and Antonio Ramirez operated the Fierro store for a time until my grandfather closed the store and reopened in Central. My mother recalls that the stores were each called "La Mexicana" and operated until my grandfathers death around 1947 or 1948. Thank you for helping me take a walk down "memory" lane with my 85 year old mother. It did us both good!

jmhouse said...

Steve, thanks for your comment. It made my day to hear that you and your mother were able to remember Fierro together! All the information you shared as new to me and I'm glad you passed it along. Do you know whereabouts in Fierro "La Mexicana" was located? I wonder if I'd be able to picture the general area.

Thanks again! JM

John said...

Nice to hear about Fiero & see old pictures. I spent all my summers there as a child. My grandfather Juan Manuel Araujo owned the Araujo Store. I have great memories of picking out cereals and getting our ice cream from the store. We got to pick out our school clothes from the store too when our vacation was over. My parents got married at St. Anthony's and I loved to go back & see the murals of St. Michael. I have such great memories of Fiero.

jmhouse said...

It's always great to hear from someone with ties to Fierro. That's fantastic that your grandfather owned the Araujo Store! Fierro must have been a truly wonderful place as everyone I've heard from that knew the town has nothing but the warmest memories of it. I hope I keep hearing those memories. Thanks for sharing yours, John! JM

Unknown said...

I'm planning to visit fierro in the next couple of weeks.. actually on thanksgiving week.. does anyone know if there will be any local offices open at that time, my grandparents lived there in the 1930's

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your comment, Unknown. That's wonderful that your grandparents lived in Fierro in the 1930's. I think you'll really enjoy visiting the area. There is no one living in Fierro at all now, and no functioning businesses. However, if your trip Thanksgiving week coincides with a service at St. Anthony's Mission Catholic Church you might be able to speak to some former residents, perhaps even someone that knew your grandparents. There are people living in Hanover, but the post office is about the only local service I can recall. They're in the old train depot. You might consider going to Bayard (not the fort, but the town) and/or Hurley just to the south. You may want to stop by the JW Art Gallery in Hurely, in particular, as they have a great selection of books about the region and know some of the history. Beyond that, I guess Silver City is your best bet for information.

Thanks again, and have a fantastic trip! JM

Carmen Hinostroza said...

Thank you so much for your information. .I was told that my grandfather's name is in the history of fierro and that he opened roads. I can't wait to visit

jmhouse said...

Carmen Hinostroza, have you got a copy of "Remembering Fierro (again): Revised Edition" by Frank Ramirez? You may well find a mention of your grandfather in that book as it covers a lot of the town's history and includes many names. The only place I'm sure that it's available is at the JW Art Gallery in Hurley, NM, which I mentioned previously.

Enjoy your visit! JM

Carmen Hinostroza said...

No JM i haven't. . I need to search for it! I'm very excited about the trip. I found out that on Friday after thankiving local offices are going to be open in Bayar New mexico

jmhouse said...

That's great that the Bayard city offices will be open, Carmen. Should be a wonderful time. Hopefully the weather holds down there. Please give us a report on what you find if you get a chance!


Carmen Hinostroza said...

Well I finally got to visit fierro! I was amazed.. took some pictures..and I really like the geographic of the town.. I could see my self living kids really enjoyed it..everything was close pretty much so we went bayard to the Catholic Church and found some info..I had order the book of remembering fierro again but unfortunately Mr Frank Ramirez had already past away n so they return my letter with the money order that I had sent.later I found out that they have the book at the museum in silver city. .I really would like to have one of my own.

jmhouse said...

I'm glad you made it to Fierro, Carmen! It's a peaceful location, isn't it? That's too bad that Frank Ramirez passed away. I didn't know that. So, the Wade Gallery was out of "Remembering Fierro (again)"? Hmm, that's the only place I knew to get it. Perhaps there are book stores in Silver City besides the museum that can track it down.

Anyway, a return trip to Fierro sounds like a good idea! JM

R Castillo said...

My mom was born there in 1922 daughter of Enrique Rodriguez and Dolores pay an Rodriguez he was a miner and my mom said helped to build the school which no longer exists close to the church we took her there and she showed us her house my grandfather built my grandmother Dolores and her two daughters clementina and Arnulfa are in the cemetery she would talk about the great times in Fierro and how the foremans and the owners of the mines lived in the nice part while the workers lived apart but she said those were good times I took her there in the 1980s and we still found people there that knew her as a child , one old lady in particular mrs Andazola a very old lady she was baptized in at Anthony's church

jmhouse said...

Thank you for sharing some of your family history, R Castillo. Do you know if your grandmother's home still stands? There are a few houses remaining around town, but not too many. I'd loved to have photographed the school.

The separation of the owners and workers is interesting. Of course, things got more heated in that regard just down the road in Hanover. Still, there are indeed lots of very fond memories of the area.

Thanks again! JM

Geri said...

I accidently "discovered" Fierro while out in that area looking for something else. I always carry my camera and took a few pix of the town and the profusion of wildflowers growing all through it. There's not much left standing as Nature reclaims the land but the area is so serene. I would like to go back and explore the cemetery as I always feel a cemetery can tell some stories about what went on before. Enjoyed your blog...btw have you ever checked out the ghost towns of Shakespeare (Lordsburg) and Steins(about 15 miles west on Lordsburg on Hwy 10)? Happy Trails, G

jmhouse said...

Fierro is pretty awesome, isn't it, Geri?! I'd like to photograph it with all the wildflowers we've got blooming now, too. The cemetery is definitely worth a look.

As for Shakespeare, I haven't visited yet because the one time I was there they were closed. I've been trying to get back on a day when they've been open ever since. That's years now. But I have indeed been to Steins and did a blog post on it a while back. Steins recent history is tragic, but you can read about it HERE.

Thanks for stopping by City of Dust! JM

Ms Mimbreno said...

Do you know what year the school was built? I've had some of the oak flooring in my house that we built 30 years ago in nearby Mimbres. We bought it as a pile of firewood and reclaimed it.

jmhouse said...

That's a good question, Ms Mimbreno! The best resource by far on Fierro is "Remembering Fierro (again)-Revised Edition" by Frank Ramirez. There is a reference in that book to a "big school" with a basement containing rest rooms (for staff; students used outhouses) and heating units. A Ms. Wellborn says she attended this school in 1916. The book contains a photo of the school, which is indeed quite large. Elsewhere there is mention of schooling in Fierro starting about 1910, with classes at first being held in buildings around town.

So, if your oak flooring came from the "big school" I think it would date somewhere between 1910 and 1916. However, I'm just piecing dates together and could always be wrong. Maybe somebody else will be able to add more information.

In any case, I'm so happy you salvaged that flooring and didn't use it for firewood!! That old wood is wonderful. I know someone that has some of the Cedarvale train depot as their kitchen floor!

Thanks for stopping by City of Dust! JM